November 25th, 2014 by Darin
The big secret behind dystopias—books, movies, video games—is that we, the writers, are cheating. Dystopias are easy—the number one rule behind Your Very Own Dystopia is to keep it simple: dystopias don’t usually arise because people are jerks; they arise because somebody, somewhere thinks he or she has the best idea how to improve the world for everyone else. The plan is always utopian at first—a sweeping, well-maintained, smooth-operating civilization that gets everyone what they need quickly, safely, and efficiently. The problem, of course, is that nation-building is a little subjective. One man’s utopia is almost always everyone else’s dystopia. Presto! You’ve just ruined the world for everyone else. Go enjoy your bleak architecture and gray-faced populace: you’re a bona fide dystopian now.
And that’s fine. Dystopias fantasies are a lot of fun. We’ve been dreaming them up and threatening each other with them for quite a long time. They’re corrective—they posit a slightly different version of what we’re already used to, yanking us out of the contexts of the everyday thrum and giving us a chance to see the wizard behind the curtains of our own daily lives.
But when you can’t change the channel, or put down the book, or save your game for later, dystopias become problematic. Part of why we like them so much is because they’re so sustainably sinister. The people stuck inside can’t get out of them, not until some intrepid revolutionary comes predictably along and bucks the system—then everything goes Technicolor, and the soundtrack switches to a major key. Most of the townsfolk in the background get really annoyed because, well, they’re used to being dystopians—it’s convenient. For them, revolutionaries are just jackasses with megaphones, and their demonstrations disrupt traffic and piss off the government, and threaten our freedoms.
Which is where we find ourselves today, and why it isn’t funny anymore—why the genre is so white-hot right now. Dystopian media is so reflective of our own interrelated, transnational day-to-days that it shares more in common with reality television (excuse me: unscripted dramas) than it does with zany science fiction.
What are some other rules in the dystopian game? Police states are common. Typically, when some sociopathic fuckwit enacts his or her plan to Rule the World Correctly, there’s a bit of . . . pushback. The populace has to be broken like a herd of mustangs, and that’s most easily done with militarized police forces. The reportage of the unrest in Ferguson looks more like documentary footage from the Arab Spring. But this is in the middle of the United States. “Freedomland.” For many of us, this is our first time to see a dystopia in the backyard, and it only looks weird because we’re not supposed to see it. And it’s a self-perpetuating system. Dystopia begets dystopia, as we’ve seen in the increased concern and paranoia that’s delivering military equipment to Texas schools, as detailed in this September 15th article from the Texas Tribune.
But we could chart this paranoia up to dangerous times—and we should, if we’re going to build this dystopia properly. Pull up your favorite dystopia, and see how fear and continual war are used as justifications for power grabs, perpetual states of emergency, and surveillance states: Eurasia in Orwell’s 1984; the ill-defined-but-upcoming war in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; the menacing, untamed nature beyond the Green Wall in Zamyatin’s We. Sound familiar? The War on Terror has been chasing shifting enemies for thirteen years.
Of course, none of this is to make light of the very real horrors and injustices that people are enduring all over the world. Those aren’t fictions, and they deserve heightened scrutiny, analysis, and awareness. And there’s the rub: you don’t want that stuff to happen to you, do you? You don’t want to end up like them. So get in line and do what I say. Especially if I’m backed by another favorite dystopian trick: the cult of personality. There’s usually somebody (the Benefactor, Big Brother) who acts as the final caregiver, the final protector of the people against their enemies. A personality larger than life itself—a shared, cultural figurehead in whose personality everyone has some claim, some stake of opinion, reaction, or belief. And it takes a lot of work—a lot of money and time and resources—to create one of these personalities. We in the U.S. should know, as The Washington Post reported back in 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each spent more than a billion dollars on their campaigns. For the crushing majority of us, that is an unfathomable price tag. But that’s what it costs these days to win the presidency, and doing so is big business, employing scores of campaign workers, drivers, security guards—the list goes on. There’s an entire industry behind identifying and securing the leader who will protect us from Them.
And it works . . . for a while. A typical hallmark in a dystopia is that things are getting along okay. No one’s having a particularly great time, but if you follow the rules and stand where you’re supposed to, you’ll get your bucket of Soylent Green, and you can go home to watch the programs that have been federally approved for broadcast. And then you can get up and do it all over again. If all you want is a mostly stable, unexciting, safe existence, you’d do fine with a townhome in some urban dystopia. After all, there is plenty of reassurance, plenty of propaganda to let you know that What You’re Doing is Right—even if you are a racist, or a sexist, or just a moron.
When people start to get twitchy, that’s when the cracks appear. Surveillance and detection become high priorities for our Dystopian State—after all, one must root out the revolutionaries who might start a cultural wildfire. Everyone is safer this way—we can’t allow the fringe to collapse the system. And that means some casualties—some incomprehensible arrests, sham convictions (or exonerations), compromised bank accounts and phone records. If you want to make an omelet, crack some eggs, and just wait for the next content cycle to wash the news away. By that time, people will be paying less attention to the whistleblowers and reactionaries that you’re quietly trying to disappear. The court of public opinion is for sale after all.
Which is when things really become insidious. People need to buy in to your Dystopian State—sometimes bread lines and terror threats just aren’t enough. So they need to be educated (programmed) such that their own identities, their own understandings and worldviews, are tied up in your ideology. You can pull this off by any number of means. You can make up a new language that serves your purposes, you can lock down your borders and censor outside influence (that’s a favorite), and you can very easily make scapegoats and scare people from time to time. That one’s classic. And if you can tie voluntary participation in this process into the message, then you’re golden. It’s not dissimilar to our own runaway problem with college tuition. You want to go to college, don’t you? I mean, that’s where the real money is, and well, the neighbors’ kid went to college . . . we know you’re smarter than that guy. Never mind how much it costs. Never mind that it will indenture you to a life of debt that will slow your actual realization of the financial dreams and material promises of a college education. Never mind that those hallowed halls, those sacred spaces, are themselves for sale—you’re getting an education. Which is exactly how we’ve primed you to participate accordingly. The national narrative is about GDP and ROI and gains and returns—if you don’t agree, well, then you might just be an enemy of the state, mightn’t you?
Citizens in dystopian states, like oligarchies, are assets—human resources. Sure, they’re people in the end, and Big Brother really would prefer that you stay safe and lead an unthreatened life—he really would—but he can’t help it if the machines and finances he relies upon to accomplish this need a little extra from you. Nothing is free, after all, and if that means risking the whole system, dispossessing a few folks, disappearing a few gambling with jobs, or restricting a few rights, then thems the breaks. Take a load off with a good story or game or movie about some dystopian Neverland because, I mean, it could be that bad, after all. Aren’t we lucky here, though, in the real world?